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Who controls a college football program? It depends on the day, really

Tennessee's attempt to hire Greg Schiano was a bad idea for obvious reasons, and it revealed the real power behind the program.

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NCAA Football: Vanderbilt at Tennessee Randy Sartin-USA TODAY Sports

Trying to hire Greg Schiano to coach Tennessee football wasn’t a bad idea. It was, at minimum, four bad ideas.

First: Schiano is an authoritarian program-builder with no local ties and a tendency to rub those around him the wrong way. That sounds a lot like Butch Jones, the coach Tennessee just fired, only more expensive.

Second: Schiano’s record is good, but not great or inspiring enough to merit instant consideration. The program Schiano rebuilt was Rutgers in the 2000s. It took five years for Schiano to get Rutgers to a seven-win season in a conference weakened by the 2004 departures of Miami and Virginia Tech. In 11 years at the school, Rutgers won just four games over ranked opponents. Again: If Tennessee wanted this, they could just rehire Butch Jones. His keys to the building probably still work.

Third: Schiano was tyrannical at Rutgers, disliked by NFL scouts, and was the cornerstone of a budget-trashing push for football funding at Rutgers. (Rutgers even cut out part of an ecological preserve and gave Schiano an interest-free home loan so he could build a house practically on-campus.) He became a laughing stock in the NFL. His time at Ohio State as an assistant has been mostly fine, provided you write off giving up 55 points to Iowa as recently as this season. Iowa has gone an entire month at a time without scoring 55 points as a program, even though the Hawkeyes probably went 4-0 in that month, because no one stretches groceries like Kirk Ferentz.

Fourth: Schiano was a hard sell to begin with, and then was sold very, very poorly. The connections between Schiano and the Jerry Sandusky scandal at Penn State are, by legal standards, hearsay. That can’t be stated enough. What also can’t be stated enough is this: If the public discussion about the coaching search begins with “Now, about his name appearing in a court document involving that child sex scandal,” then that chapter of the discussion is over before it even started. That is a horrendous visual for a university that just paid out a $2.48 million settlement to eight women in a sexual assault suit involving the football program, and whose previous coach got calls from the police about a rape investigation before even the players did.

There are probably more reasons, but the point should be clear. In terms of earning a job or demonstrating an obvious, first-choice level of competence, Schiano was not a clear No. 1 choice for the Tennessee job. It could be argued that in this unusually deep pool of available coaches in 2017, Schiano wasn’t a top five or 10 pick for the Tennessee job — and that’s considering the list of coaches available after Chip Kelly and Dan Mullen were taken off the board.


It should be easy to see who killed the Schiano deal: Everyone outside of the Tennessee athletic department’s offices, and maybe a few people inside it, too.

There are other explanations. Some in the media claim Schiano was railroaded by an internet mob bent on using disinformation to scuttle an instantly despised coaching hire. That explanation feels marginally true, but maximally false, particularly when “social media outrage” can be given as a causal reason for anything. It seems especially inaccurate within a community as small and insular as the Tennessee athletics. To wit: If misinformation painted on a rock on campus is evidence of real, influential opinions, then Peyton Manning is running for president.

The people most disappointed by the suggestion of Greg Schiano included those who know the program best, who were most invested in the program, and who understand the program’s recent history all too well. Yes, there are people in the Tennessee fan base who made bad faith arguments against Schiano. But they’re a margin, a fringe — albeit an ugly one — growing on the edge of a much larger, decade-long discontent within the Tennessee fan base.

The likeliest case — and a way, way better mechanical explanation of what happened with Schiano — is more complex, local, and mundane. Tennessee’s big boosters obviously signed off on athletic director John Currie’s choice. In reaction, the vast upper-middle and middle classes of Tennessee supporters threatened to vote with their feet and their wallets when Schiano emerged without so much as a trial balloon or even a rudimentary PR campaign to test the idea. That included season ticket holders, donors, and Tennessee’s large and influential group of NFL veterans.

Which brings up an important question no one really has a simple answer to: While we’re wondering about curious management decisions, does anyone really know who, on a given day, controls a college football team?

In figuring out how this latest debacle happened, it means considering not a mob, but the actual group of ever-changing stakeholders who have an ever-varying amount of sway over how a college football program works.

In Tennessee’s case, as a state university, it turns out a lot of people own the football program. As a state university, the number of stakeholders directly include bodies like the Board of Regents, or even something as distant as the Tennessee legislature. In a moment of good judgment so rare it has to be considered both coincidental and accidental, members of the Tennessee legislature roundly condemned the hire and applauded its collapse. To put that in context, consider that one of the only other things that has ever united the Tennessee legislature is a hatred of sagging pants.

University administration is involved, particularly the director of the athletic department. One factor in the case of Tennessee to consider here miiiiight just be the unique and shaky position of their athletic director. An athletic director has power, sure — but that power can vary wildly from school to school, and depends greatly on their track record and connections. Unfortunately for him, Currie was hired in February of 2017. If all of this seems like the actions of someone still feeling out the terrain less than a year into the job, well: It might have been just that.

There are big boosters like Jimmy Haslam, the Pilot Flying J gas station baron and owner of the Cleveland Browns. At Tennessee, they’re rich enough that they and their friends get $20 million yachts stuck on the river on the way to party at the Alabama/Tennessee game.

Their influence is not exact or systematic, but it is powerful. Big-money boosters throw enough money around to get names on buildings, push hirings and firings at every level of the athletic department, and most importantly hold the ear of everyone powerful who matters in the program and beyond. In Haslam’s case, this is especially true: He’s close with former Vols coach Phil Fulmer, was a college roommate of Senator Bob Corker, and is definitely the brother of Bill Haslam, the current governor of Tennessee and former mayor of Knoxville. (When we said before that Tennessee was insular and small, we meant it.)

That’s a lot of power, but eventually the middle matters. Football programs need actual butts in seats a lot less than they used to thanks to television money, but they still need the steady cash flow of season tickets and home-game revenue. Tennessee, in particular, with 102,455 seats to fill in Neyland Stadium, needs all the butts it can get.

More than that, programs need proof of life to translate into revenue, something to take back to the administration while pointing to increased applications and cash given back to the university while saying, “We still matter, and are worth all the trouble and conflicts of interest a large football program can bring.”

The answer to who controls college athletics is an extremely familiar one for anyone talking the SEC: A college football program, operationally, runs a lot like a church. Realistically, a few people pay for everything, but don’t really own it. The reverends set the table organizationally; the deacons run everything with help from volunteers. The financing can be mostly above board, or not at all; a good chunk of the labor is often of the unpaid variety.

When deacons pick a preacher no one likes without even consulting, the collection plate dries up. To keep that from happening at any college program, the deacons might want to at least consider what the congregation is thinking before making a move. When they don’t, you get a Sunday as bad as the one Tennessee had before rescinding the offer to Schiano.

Metaphorically speaking: They may not write the checks for the new chapel, but the congregation’s attendance is what makes it a church. If the congregation doesn’t see something like salvation in the service, they’re going to stop showing up altogether. And after a decade of bad-to-indifferent leadership at the pulpit, Tennessee football wants something, anything that feels like at least a peek at the promised land. If they get it with a new hire, that will be one piece of good news for Tennessee. The other good news will be that the congregation saw something it didn’t like, and still cared enough to yell about it.